Thursday, January 25, 2007

Bo: Renewal of Spirit and Morals

In a week marred by the Katzav affair, the portion details the first commandment with which the Jewish nation is charged. Each month's beginning is a holiday on the Jewish calendar, and its announcement is ritualized in halacha. Witnesses look out for the night when the moon is begins its waxing period, and they make haste to Jerusalem, to announce their sighting to the court. What is certain is that this is not simply the effort of a crude, unenlightened people to set a calendar. The court in Jerusalem knew the astronomical intricacies very well, and even had the power to override the testimony of witnesses in order to plan the calendar pragmatically for the nation.

So, what is the purpose of the New Moon ceremony? Rabbi Hirsch points out immediately that the moon produces no light of its own. Its surface simply reflects the rays of the obscured sun. Immediately, this conjures up the natural symbol of the moon for the Nation of Israel. As the moon reflects the light of the sun to the inhabitants of Earth, so are we supposed to reflect the spiritual warmth of God to the rest of the world. The moon is beautiful because of the light it reflects; in the same vein, we are a model to the world because of our relationship to God.

When a Jew gazes at the moon, he lifts his mind from the physical, material world, and shifts his sights higher. The wax and wane of the moon represent the constant struggle of humanity to remain true to God's spiritual and ethical commands. The gravity of materialism slowly draws mankind away from lofty goals, and mires it in the drudgery of pragmatism. Eventually, however, the soul re-exerts itself, and lifts humanity back to the realm of ethical growth. This constant state of flux creates tension and a recurring yearning for growth. Without falling, we would have less drive to rise higher. And so, the national focus on the moon each month beckons Israel back to its goal of reflecting Hashem's light. It is an invitation to interact with God in a closer way, to commune with Him on a deeper level.

Thus we can understand the offering of Rosh Chodesh. On this day, a goat is brought, a sin offering, to atone for sins that are unconsciously committed (Shavuoth 9a). The nation atones for its waning spiritual and moral consciousness, and resolves to strengthen these in the future. The tradition of יום כיפור קטן, the miniature day of atonement, which occurs the day before Rosh Chodesh, is also a reflection of this concept. Before the holiday, we turn our thoughts towards penance, and work our ways closer to Godliness.

This day of communion with God, this renewal of national and individual spirit, is not one-sided. God does not want to command His nation to re-inspire themselves. And so, He places us in control of the commemoration. The nation is responsible to set the date, not just through their sanhedrin proxy, but through popular moon-watching and testimony. Each Jew watches the sky, searching for astronomical renewal, and is symbolically invited to spiritual renewal. The nation communes with God as co-participants, not simply as servants fulfilling the will of their master. Jews renew themselves, weaving a new reality, and join Hashem in creation.

The time of the reawakening is, paradoxically, the time immediately following the darkest point in the cycle of the moon. Historically, Jews spring to new heights directly from the shadows of their lowest falls. And so, בדמיך חיי, from our bloodiest point, from our lowest spiritual and moral stances, we are enjoined to live! -- To grasp life and reach higher, re-dedicating every step to God.

May our national shame this week be a springboard for rapid spiritual accomplishment, culminating in redemption.